Netanyahu seeks immunity in graft cases

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his intention to ask the Knesset for parliamentary immunity from being prosecuted in three corruption cases against him.

Netanyahu made the announcement in a live television address, just four hours before the midnight January 1 deadline to apply for immunity was set to expire.  “I intend to ask the Knesset Speaker, according to the Article 4, to let me implement my right, my duty and my mission to continue serving you for the future of Israel.”

He also followed through on an earlier promise to resign all of his additional cabinet posts because of his criminal indictments. In lieu of appointing others, until now Netanyahu held the Social Welfare, Diaspora Affairs, Agriculture and Health portfolios (the latter of which he relinquished earlier this week with the 29 December 2019 promotion of Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, of the United Torah Judaism party.

The Israeli leader and Chairman of the right-wing, ruling Likud party was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust; over allegations he granted state favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage in the Israeli press and gifts. He has adamantly denied any acts of wrongdoing, and insists he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media and left-wing opponents.

“I intend to ask [for immunity] because I am sacrificing my life to you, the people of Israel,” he said during the announcement, going on to assert, “But there are people, who unlike me, did commit grave crimes and they have life-long immunity — they are just on the right side of the media and the left wing.”

The move is expected to delay his criminal trial for months, as proceedings cannot be initiated once an immunity request has been made. Had Netanyahu not filed the request by Wednesday’s deadline, the indictment against him could have been submitted to a court and be allowed to move forward as early as Sunday.

As Netanyahu is the first sitting Israeli Premier to be indicted, all developments surrounding the case are unprecedented. Even the potential granting of immunity is likely to come under review by the Supreme Court, which could ultimately strike it down.

Netanyahu’s request does not come without risks, and is particularly bound to add ammunition to criticism by his political challengers – who have accused him of representing a danger to Israel’s democratic and judicial foundations, and operating as an autocratic leader who deems himself to be above the law.

Netanyahu’s main political rival was swift to respond to the Premier’s intent to be shielded from prosecution. In a statement to TV7 from the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz vowed that his faction” will do everything legally possible”…”to establish a Knesset Committee to prevent the provision of immunity to a criminal defendant.”

“Netanyahu has been charged with bribery and is guilty of holding the State of Israel and its citizens hostage in his legal battles. He has already dragged us into elections three times over the course of one year, at the cost of billions of shekels. Those are funds that could have gone to hospitals, to Holocaust survivors or to educating our children. Instead, these funds are going into yet another campaign,” said the former IDF Chief of Staff.

Knesset Member and Lt.-Col. (Res.) Gantz further promised that among the first “undertakings” by the next Knesset will be amendment of the existing Immunity Law  “to ensure that it cannot be used to evade criminal offenses.” Taking a swipe at Netanyahu’s record four terms at the helm of the government, Gantz went on to reveal that the next Knesset will act to impose term-limits on the premiership “in order to prevent corruption.”

The Blue and White leader then said, “I see (Israel) today is led by a man who is prepared to push us to the fringes and is jeopardizing the civic principle upon which we were all educated – that everyone is equal before the law.” He went on to underscore that “In the State of Israel, there will be no one above the law” and that “A Prime Minister is an elected official, first among equals – not a ruler of the people, not above the nation and not above the law and the justice system.”

Amid deep political impasse in Israel, a majority vote by the 120 Knesset Members (MKs) would be necessary to grant Netanyahu immunity – the same percentage of support that eluded his efforts to form a government after both 2019 ballots last April and September. Most analysts believe a vote on the matter is unlikely to be held before the third round of national elections in just 11 months, slated for 2 March 2020.

In accordance with Israeli law mandating swift consideration of immunity requests by government officials, the Knesset’s legal counsel has reportedly advised that it is possible to convene a House Committee to rule on the matter — even though the 22nd Knesset never had the opportunity to appoint such a body during its short time in power. However, even the lame-duck parliament is believed to have the right to do so at this time, if the Knesset Arrangements Committee authorizes such a petition.

In an update from Blue and White this afternoon, TV7 was informed that the Chairman of the Regulatory Committee, MK Avi Nissenkorn, is slated to meet on Sunday (5 January) at 1 PM with Knesset Chairman, MK Yuli Edelstein, and the Knesset Attorney General, Attorney Eyal Yanun to discuss the establishment of a Knesset committee on the request for immunity.

Israeli citizens are mixed over the issue. Speaking to Reuters in Jerusalem today, 64-year-old Craig Schottenstein said, “If Netanyahu did in fact commit these crimes, he needs to be transparent and he needs to own up to any of the discrepancies or any of the wrongdoings that may have happened; and quite frankly, the country needs to know about this.” A social worker of the same age identified as Sarah Avitsur commented, “Once the police and the prosecution believe that very serious crimes have been committed by our Prime Minister, I’m … it’s embarrassing, it’s upsetting, I hope very, very much that this ridiculous idea will not go through.” 60-year-old David Albichzar, who is a hairdresser, stated, “I don’t understand why we need to give.. to say things like he deserves it, he doesn’t deserve it, moral, not moral. He thinks that he deserves immunity. He can come out of this whole thing clean, so give him a chance. Why not give him a chance?”